Medical experts, politicians agree on need for obesity measures

Support for sugar tax as expert says obesity ‘not a knowledge-deficiency disease’

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly: said people were assaulted with “eating opportunities” and aggressive advertising of sweets and chocolate and were being encouraged to eat for short-term pleasure over long-term damage.  Photograph: Phil Mynott

Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly: said people were assaulted with “eating opportunities” and aggressive advertising of sweets and chocolate and were being encouraged to eat for short-term pleasure over long-term damage. Photograph: Phil Mynott

 

Medical experts, GPs and politicians have called on the incoming government to prioritise policies for dealing with obesity. It follows the publication of a study in the British medical journal the Lancet suggesting Ireland, with the UK, is set to have the highest level of obesity in Europe within a decade.

The Royal College of Physicians in Ireland’s policy group on obesity called for a sugar tax similar to that proposed in the UK. It said public health policies “must be intrinsic part of the next programme for government”.

The college also said “Ireland’s obesity epidemic” was a significant burden on the health services. Co-chairman of the policy group Prof Donal O’Shea said the study, whose authors were from Imperial College London, was “very timely”.

“A tax on sugar-sweetened drinks has the strongest evidence of effectiveness of taxation approaches to address overweight and obesity. These include sugar-sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit drink, sports drinks and fruit-juice concentrates,” he said.

Measures to deal with high-sugar products were also proposed by Dublin-born professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, one of the world’s foremost experts on biochemistry and metabolism.Prof O’Rahilly, director of metabolic research laboratories at the University of Cambridge, said obesity was “not a knowledge-deficiency disease”. He said people were assaulted with “eating opportunities” and aggressive advertising of sweets and chocolate and were being encouraged to eat for short-term pleasure over long-term damage.

Prof O’Rahilly said a key factor in the link between obesity and ill-health was where the body stored fat. A person who had a “pot belly with thin legs” was storing fat less optimally than a person “with a big bum and big legs like a Mullingar heifer”. Fat stored just under the skin on the legs and bottom was less damaging than fat stored in the abdomen, where there was not much room for it.

A second key factor in how the body managed fat was was that some people were less genetically prone to become obese than others. This factor made predictions about levels of obesity in the population difficult.Genetically, he said northern Europeans had a lower correlation between obesity and a range of illnesses such as type-two diabetes, than their counterparts in, for example Asia.

Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone also called for “urgent action”, including education for children in primary school, more physical education, the introduction of a sugar tax on soft drinks and measures such as “no fry zones” around schools.